The Changing Role of Democracy in Asian Geopolitics – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Sign up to receive emails from Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program!
Check your email for details on your request.
This publication is from Carnegie’s Rising Democracies Network.
Security issues like North Korea’s latest nuclear test dominate policy conversations about Asia, shifting the region’s changing geopolitical landscape once more to the forefront of the international agenda. Feeding into such challenges is the structural question of what strategic impact China’s rise will have. Significantly, amid Asia’s high-profile security concerns, the role of democracy in the region’s geopolitics seems to be gaining resonance.
Many observers, such as Wesley Clark, Andrew Nathan, and Michael Pillsbury, have been assuming that China’s rise is loading the dice against democracy and is part of a global authoritarian resurgence. But emergent dynamics in Asia indicate a more complex picture. China’s increasing strategic preponderance certainly seems to have negative implications for democracy, but this dynamic, in some ways, is coinciding with a more galvanized focus on democracy among other regional actors.
This trend can be seen on three levels. First, civic movements in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan are applying greater pressure to deepen democratic practices as a defense against Chinese influence. Second, many Asian democracies are beginning to forge greater security cooperation among themselves, sometimes in an apparent attempt to offset China’s military power. And third, several Asian democracies are exploring ways to strengthen democracy support across borders.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, democracy movements driven by civic activists and organizations have become a sign of more potent citizen engagement in response to China’s growing geopolitical sway. The Sunflower Movement took shape in Taiwan in 2014 as a protest against the ratification of a controversial proposed trade pact between mainland China and Taiwan called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). Students occupied the Legislative Yuan because they feared that decisionmakers were about to put this agreement into effect in a nontransparent manner.
In the lead-up to the CSSTA, then president Ma Ying-jeou’s administration (2008–2016) had strengthened Taiwan’s relations with mainland China by establishing regular ship and flight connections between the two and by concluding a free trade deal with Beijing—the so-called Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. In seeking to conclude the CSSTA, the administration aimed to relax constraints on trade in services between Taiwan and China.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, student-led protests in 2012 targeted education reforms designed to celebrate China’s Communist government. Intermittent pro-democracy marches then gave birth to the large-scale 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which protesters demanded an open nomination system for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, as opposed to the proposed system that would allow Beijing to indirectly screen candidates. The Umbrella Movement ended when the police forcibly removed protesters from demonstration sites, but there have since been sporadic large-scale protests against the Chinese government’s ever-tightening control of political space in Hong Kong and repression of human rights across China.
Linking these pro-democracy movements is a desire to offset Chinese political influence. Taiwanese students’ concerns about the Ma administration’s pro-China policy came to a head with the CSSTA. They feared that creeping economic overdependence on China—coupled with their government’s allegedly weak efforts to evaluate the future impact of the CSSTA on Taiwan’s economy—could increase China’s economic leverage and political influence over Taiwan, in part by strengthening the influence of Chinese companies with strong ties with the Chinese Communist Party. A similar phenomenon has already taken place in Hong Kong. When the Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba purchased Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, for example, the paper’s tone seemed to shift toward a more pro-China line.
Likewise, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was spurred by many residents’ general dislike of China’s influence and their fear that the one country, two systems formula designed to guarantee Hong Kong a measure of political autonomy is at risk. The rising discontent among Hong Kong’s general public about China’s perceived negative impact on their daily lives further drove such anxiety. In recent years, Hong Kong has been subject to soaring property prices and housing costs due to real estate investment by wealthy mainland Chinese, while the prices of other goods have ballooned due to Chinese visitors’ and smugglers’ tendency to buy up large quantities of Hong Kong–produced foods and other types of products, which are perceived to have higher quality assurance standards than those available on the mainland.1 Among the city’s young generation of pro-democracy activists and politicians, there are even so-called localists who push for full independence from China. While this faction is not dominant, it shows that the influence of the pro-democracy side is not likely to wane in the future as post-handover generations become politically active.
China’s precipitous rise and its intensifying economic and political influence have coincided with a renewed focus on local identities in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. According to the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, more than 25 percent of Taiwanese self-identified as Chinese in the early 1990s, but this percentage has steadily declined over time and has stayed below 5 percent since 2008. By contrast, while less than 20 percent of people in Taiwan self-identified as Taiwanese in the early 1990s, this number has been on the rise, hitting a record high of 60 percent in 2014, and has remained almost that high since.
Similarly, the percentage of people in Hong Kong who identify themselves primarily in relation to their home city—as either “Hong Kongers” or “Hong Kongers in China”— increased from 47.3 percent in June 2008 to 63.3 percent in June 2017. Conversely, the number of people defining themselves chiefly in relation to mainland China—as either “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”—declined sharply from 51.9 percent in June 2008 to 35.0 percent in June 2017. In addition, many Hong Kongers’ views of the Chinese government in Beijing have deteriorated since the late 2000s. In 2008, 66.2 percent reported improved sentiments toward the government in Beijing relative to the time of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China, a figure that has since fallen and has been no higher than 20 percent since 2014. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hong Kongers who report worsening impressions of the Chinese government steadily increased from 4.3 percent in 2007 to 37.8 percent in 2017. In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, then, growing distrust of Beijing has coincided with stronger support for local identities and protests that call for democratic traditions and values to be protected and deepened.
In light of this shared concern about Chinese influence, pro-democracy actors in Hong Kong and Taiwan have begun to cooperate. Politicians from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party and New Power Party (NPP), the latter of which grew from the Sunflower Movement, partnered together to launch the Taiwan Congressional Hong Kong Caucus in June 2017 with the aim of supporting democracy in Hong Kong. The caucus intends to provide a venue for legislators from Taiwan and Hong Kong to share experiences and views on issues related to democracy. Nathan Law, from the Demosistō Party that was born out of the Umbrella Movement, has called Taiwan an “ally” and has asserted that “Hong Kong and Taiwan face a similar problem in that we are being challenged by an authoritarian Chinese government, especially on human rights.”
The Chinese government is anxious to break up this cooperation. This is likely because it focuses not only on democratic values but also on “anti-China sentiment,” in the words of Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University. Pro-China groups attacked Nathan Law and Joshua Wong of the Demosistō Party when they visited Taiwan to attend a meeting that the NPP organized in January 2017. The Patriot Association, which advocates Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China, and people allegedly linked to the Chinese Communist Party attacked Law and Wong. The latter has also been denied entry into Malaysia and Thailand, a move that many critics have interpreted as a likely sign of Chinese influence and political pressure in these countries.
Passionate democratic activism also seems to be making inroads elsewhere in East Asia. The student movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan have influenced student groups in Japan. Japanese students formed the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) in 2014 to protest against bills that they believed would unconstitutionally permit Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense. Their agenda is pro-democracy and pacifist. These students directly modeled their techniques and tactics after the student protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan.2 In addition, various Japanese private actors such as publishers and universities have invited student leaders from Hong Kong and Taiwan to Japan to encourage and facilitate interactions, discussions, and opportunities to learn from each other.3
The political power of ordinary citizens has also grown in South Korea. Candlelight protests against the alleged misdeeds of former president Park Geun-hye in late 2016 and early 2017 sought to combat corruption and call for greater political transparency. Although these protests were not motivated by China’s rise, they arguably underscored that democratic values like accountability and checks and balances are seen as more of a model than China’s authoritarian political system.
In addition to the growth of pro-democracy activities in places like Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan, several democratic governments in Asia are increasingly cooperating on issues related to security and economic statecraft; they often highlight democratic values as a common bond that has prompted them to work together to counter Chinese military power, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Specifically, the growing assertiveness of China’s territorial claims to the Spratly, Paracel, and Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the South and East China Seas, where several Asian countries have territorial disputes with China, has increased tensions between China and these neighboring countries. Coupled with the expansion of China’s naval capabilities and the relative decline of U.S. naval capabilities in the region, Asian democracies are trying to increase their regional security roles vis-à-vis China.
Maturing military relations between two of Asia’s most prominent democracies, Japan and India, are an important example. Tokyo and New Delhi made a joint declaration on security matters in 2008 stating that they share a “common commitment to democracy, open society, human rights and the rule of law.” Then in a joint press announcement after a 2013 Japan-India summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called both Japan and India “maritime democracies” and said: “India from the west, Japan from the east, the confluence of the two deep-rooted democracies is already one important part of the international common goods for the 21st century. I am of a belief that it is the important task that Japan and India should shoulder to ensure that Asia remain in peace and prosperity.”
The two countries have further heightened their cooperation, starting with the first Japan India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) in 2012. Declaring in 2015 that they would form a special strategic and global partnership based on shared principles including “democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” the two countries concluded agreements on the transfer of defense equipment and technology and on security measures to protect classified military information. Further, Japan also joined the U.S.-India joint Malabar naval exercises in 2015 as a permanent member. Most recently, in September 2017, the two countries decided to expand their defense cooperation to the research and production of dual-use technologies.
While these agreements and joint exercises have been formed to tackle multiple security issues, including the defense of sea lanes from pirates, there are indications that one of the underlying purposes is to check expanded Chinese maritime influence in the Indo-Pacific.4 The fact that the two aforementioned declarations of 2008 and 2015 mentioned the importance of maritime security alongside the rule of law indicates that these statements were created to reflect the two countries’ concerns about possible revisions to the maritime status quo in the region.
In the eyes of many analysts, therefore, China is considered to be the main source of Japanese and Indian concerns. Tokyo and New Delhi have taken these steps at least partially in light of Beijing’s increased naval capabilities; its assertiveness over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas; and China’s development of military facilities across the Indo-Pacific from Hong Kong through the Malacca Strait, across the Bay of Bengal, and on to the Arabian Sea. This naval expansion is based on the suspected Chinese “string of pearls” strategy, by which Beijing seems to be seeking to project its naval power by securing naval bases along strategic coastlines in the Indo-Pacific. The Times of India has reported that Japan and India have “join[ed] hands to break China’s ‘string of pearls.’”
India and Japan are also engaging in collaborative efforts to shape conditions for economic development as far afield as Africa. The two countries jointly launched a vision document for the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in May 2017 to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative to fund infrastructure projects in Central and Southeast Asia. The growth corridor initiative seeks to rival Beijing by focusing on transparency in African decisionmaking processes, thus differentiating its infrastructure projects from those conducted by China. In concluding these cooperation schemes, the two governments emphasized democracy, the rule of law, and human rights as the values that they share and prioritize across Africa.
More broadly, Japan has undertaken efforts to foster greater security cooperation with a host of democratic partners in the Asia Pacific in the past five years. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the Asian Security Diamond concept in 2012 in an attempt to institutionalize quadrilateral relations between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Japan also began two-plus-two dialogues with the ministers of foreign affairs and defense of Indonesia in 2015, signed an agreement on the protection of classified military information with South Korea in 2016, concluded agreements on the transfer of defense equipment and technology with the Philippines in 2016, and agreed to strengthen its maritime security cooperation with Indonesia in 2017.5
India, too, has been active in deepening security cooperation with other democracies in the region. In 2017, India undertook its first joint air combat exercise with Indonesia, and the two countries agreed to expand maritime security cooperation. India also signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea to collaborate on building military vessels. Meanwhile, Indonesia, another major Asian democracy, is somewhat less active than Japan or India, yet Indonesian President Joko Widodo launched a Global Maritime Fulcrum vision in 2014—which seemed to be partially motivated by China’s growing assertiveness in the area of maritime security.
Although Jakarta is careful not to send Beijing any overtly antagonistic signals, due to Indonesia’s nonalignment stance and geographical proximity to China, exacerbated tensions with China over the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea have made it necessary for Indonesia to enhance its maritime security. The territorial dispute over the Natuna Islands has intensified since 2010, when the China Coast Guard began taking assertive steps, such as guarding Chinese fishing boats conducting illegal fishing operations near the islands and forcibly recapturing Chinese fishing boats seized by Indonesian patrol vessels. Indonesia has expanded its security of the Natuna Islands, and in July 2017, Jakarta even changed the name of the waters located north of the islands to the North Natuna Sea to indicate that these waters and the Natuna Islands are Indonesian, not Chinese, territory.
In short, several Asian democracies have been creating an ever-denser network of security cooperation, sometimes with the explicit rationale of upholding democratic values. This shift in strategic cooperation often has been motivated by China’s rise. Explicitly seeking to differentiate themselves from China, these countries are promoting the notion of a security community of democratic, status quo powers.
This growing cooperation among Asian democracies is taking place mostly on the security front. Despite these countries’ emphasis on democracy as a shared value, regional collaboration on democracy support has developed to a far lesser extent but is showing some signs of growth.
The Japanese government, especially under the Abe administration, has sought ways to strengthen international cooperation on democracy support, though Tokyo has primarily looked to partner with the United States, not other Asian democracies. Take, for example, the concept of the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity that then foreign minister Taro Aso launched in 2006 to show Tokyo’s commitment to democracy promotion as a new pillar of Japanese foreign policy; this term echoed the Arc of Instability concept used in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review Report to refer to the region stretching from the Middle East to Northeast Asia.6 The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC, also funded a symposium at the Center for American Progress in 2015 to seek ways to strengthen U.S.-Japan cooperation on democracy support. The fate of this nascent partnership is now highly uncertain given President Donald Trump’s apparent low interest in international democracy support.
In 2008, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs under then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono created the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) as a venue for intergovernmental dialogue for democracy promotion. However, the unwillingness of some nondemocratic member countries to implement the democratic principles discussed at BDF made it difficult for the forum to achieve any clear-cut accomplishments. Furthermore, since 2014, the subsequent administration of President Joko Widodo has replaced its predecessor’s emphasis on democracy with a more pragmatic foreign policy approach; thus, the Indonesian government has exhibited little motivation to forge international democracy cooperation of late.
Other forms of cooperation are beginning to take shape among Asian democracies in the civil society sector, and multiple platforms are bringing together pro-democratic actors from across the region. The Asia Democracy Network (ADN) was launched in October 2013 by civic organizations in South Korea—namely, the Korea Democracy Foundation, the Korea Human Rights Foundation, and the East Asia Institute. The ADN gathers civil society actors from across Asia and other parts of the world who work on issues related to democracy and human rights, and it holds a regular forum for knowledge sharing and dialogue. Similarly, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) has hosted the East Asia Democracy Forum (EADF) annually since 2014, convening members of civil society from across East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan. The most recent EADF gathering in May 2017 emphasized the importance of cooperation among East Asian actors to prevent democratic backsliding.
Similar efforts are under way in Japan. The Genron NPO, a Japanese nonprofit organization committed to the renewal of Japanese democracy, has held a series of symposiums on Asian democracies to foster dialogue among civil society groups in India, Indonesia, and Japan. Some of its symposiums were conducted in cooperation with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia and the Observer Research Foundation in India, which shows that there are also think tanks in India and Indonesia interested in Asian cooperation on issues pertaining to democracy.
Some Asian governments are very cautiously beginning to support these civil society networks. The aforementioned Genron NPO–organized symposiums are held in cooperation with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are funded by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, an independent foundation under the ministry’s jurisdiction. The TFD is funded by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and supported by the Legislative Yuan. These governments have exhibited a growing interest in Asian cooperation on democracy issues.
That said, much more can be done. While several Asian governments talk of deepening democratic cooperation, their practical commitments have lagged behind their rhetoric. Since the mid-2000s, platforms for such Asian cooperation have been established but have stalled. Examples include the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia, the Forum Asia Democracy, and the World Forum for Democratization in Asia. Currently functioning platforms should be fully utilized before new ones are created.
Increasingly, several Asian countries are taking steps to defend democracy not simply as a positive force in its own right but also as a corrective to assertive Chinese authoritarianism. Experts have long alluded to the divide between democratic and nondemocratic states in Asia, but this geostrategic focus on democracy has now begun to percolate more deeply into domestic and regional politics.
Regionally coordinated democracy support and reforms could assume increasing geopolitical significance. While China is becoming more powerful, linkages and alliances across Asia that are built around or driven by democratic reforms and support could act as a partial brake on its political influence. Even if a focus on democracy building would not suffice to counter China’s geopolitical assertiveness, it is becoming a factor of greater weight that policymakers throughout the region should take into account.
Maiko Ichihara is an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University in Japan. She is a member of Carnegie’s Rising Democracies Network.
The Carnegie Endowment is grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development for their support of the Rising Democracies Network. The opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the author.
The Carnegie Endowment’s Rising Democracies Network gathered a group of prominent regional experts and diplomats in Tokyo on May 29–30, 2017, to explore recent trends regarding democracy’s place in Asia. This article reflects parts of the discussions at this gathering and was partially supported by KAKENHI Grant Number 15K17012 from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The author wishes to thank Richard Youngs and Ryan DeVries for their helpful comments and editing.
1 Please also see Kelvin Chan, “Chinese Shoppers Latest Target of Hong Kong Protest Anger,” USA Today, March 2, 2015, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/03/02/chinese-shoppers-hong-kong/24247039/.
2 SEALDs, Nihon, Honkon, Taiwan: Wakamono ha akiramenai [Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan: Youth never give up] (Tokyo: Ohta Books, 2016), 76.
3 For example, Ohta Books set up discussion sessions among student leaders from these three territories, the contents of which were published in the volume highlighted in the previous endnote. Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow of Demosisto were invited to discussion sessions by Meiji University, Rikkyo University, and the University of Tokyo in Japan in June 2017. Please see Meiji University Research Institute for Contemporary China, “ News: Kokai koenkai ‘Honkon henkan 20 shunen minshu no yukue’” [News: Holding an open talk session ‘20 years after Hong Kong’s handover and the future of democracy’], June 5, 2017, http://www.kisc.meiji.ac.jp/~china/report/2017/news_20170605.
4 Please also see Ramanand Garge, “The India–Japan Strategic Partnership: Evolving Synergy in the Indo-Pacific,” Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs 8, no. 3 (2016): 257–66.
5 Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Japan-Indonesia Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting,” December 18, 2015, http://www.mofa.go.jp/s_sa/sea2/id/page3e_000437.html; Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Signing of the Agreement Between the Government of Japan and the Government of the Republic of Korea on the Protection of Classified Military Information,” November 23, 2016, http://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_001363.html; Philippines Department of National Defense Public Affairs Service, “Signing of the Philippines-Japan Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology,” press release, February 29, 2016, http://www.dnd.gov.ph/PDF%202016/Press%20-%20Signing%20of%20the%20Philippines-Japan%20Agreement%20Concerning%20the%20Transfer%20of%20Defense%20Equipment%20and%20Technology.pdf; Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Japan-Indonesia Joint Statement on Strengthening Strategic Partnership,” January 15, 2017, http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000218457.pdf.
6 Please also see Maiko Ichihara, Japan’s International Democracy Assistance as Soft Power: Neoclassical Realist Analysis (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), 79.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
The World Unpacked is a biweekly foreign policy podcast that breaks down the hottest global issues of today with experts, journalists, and policymakers who can explain what is happening, why it matters, and where we go from here.
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036-2103
Phone: 202 483 7600
Fax: 202 483 1840
In a complex, changing, and increasingly contested world, the Carnegie Endowment generates strategic ideas and independent analysis, supports diplomacy, and trains the next generation of international scholar-practitioners to help countries and institutions take on the most difficult global problems and safeguard peace.
© 2022 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. All rights reserved.
By using this website, you agree to our cookie policy.
You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie’s global centers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *